76ers celebrate 50th anniversary of NBA's great champions

PHILADELPHIA (AP) The Philadelphia 76ers may as well have won the NBA championship when they dethroned the Boston Celtics in the east. The delirious Sixers fans stormed the court and swarmed Wilt Chamberlain. One fan even hung on a rim as the players hustled past outstretched arms to the locker room.

The Sixers popped champagne against the backdrop of a fan-made ''1967 NBA champions'' poster tacked to the wall.

The Celtics dynasty - for a year, at least - was dead.

Long live the Sixers.

Chamberlain, the agile and dominant center of his era, put an end to the hooting and hollering and silenced the Eastern Division championship revelry with a brief speech: Philadelphia still had one more goal to achieve.

''The room got very quiet,'' Sixers great Billy Cunningham said.

Chamberlain's big point was this - the Sixers didn't win 68 games and knock off the hated Celtics just to squander their shot at an NBA championship. The Sixers would have to win it all to truly stamp themselves as one of the NBA's all-team great teams.

Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Wali Jones joined Cunningham and Chamberlain to lead the Sixers to a six-game series clinch over the San Francisco Warriors and win the NBA championship.

The Sixers (68-13) were the top team in `67, and considered by many the best NBA team in history. The Sixers were tabbed the greatest team of all time in 1980 during the NBA's 35th anniversary celebration.

That honor came before Larry and Magic. Michael and LeBron. Kobe and Duncan.

''There are a lot of historical points that people don't know now because people don't know any basketball before Bird and Magic,'' Jones said. ''I tell them about a lot of people from that times and our team in our era, a lot of people don't know.

''After 40 years, we were forgotten. Nobody said, `who was the greatest team in the NBA?' and mentioned us.''

They haven't been forgotten in Philly.

The Sixers turned this season into a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of that championship team. The Sixers have worn throwback jerseys inspired by the 1966-67 road uniforms, have the year stamped on a commemorative center court logo at select games and designed sculptures for Chamberlain, Cunningham and Greer. The Sixers will honor seven living players from the team at halftime of Saturday night's game against, yup, Boston.

''It's good to remembered,'' Jones said.

What perhaps isn't remembered as easily from the black-and-white era was the climb the Sixers made just to beat Boston. The Celtics, winners of nine of 10 NBA titles in the 1960s, had eliminated the Sixers in the Division (now conference) finals in 1965 and 1966. Winning a championship seemed almost like it held second place on the season list of goals behind beating the Celtics in the postseason.

Trying to spark a change, the Sixers replaced coach Dolph Schayes with Alex Hannum. Hannum had coached the organization in its previous incarnation as the Syracuse Nationals and was familiar with most of the roster.

''He just brought immediate respect to the coaching position,'' Cunningham said. ''He just had a presence. There was a certain personality with him that gave players a great deal of respect for his decision making.''

Hannum was helped by coaching a team loaded with talent: Chamberlain, Cunningham, Greer and Walker are all in the Hall of Fame. With so much star power, Chamberlain morphed from something of a lone wolf on offense to a prominent cog on a team where it was no longer necessary for The Stilt to try and carry the Sixers on his own.

The Sixers started 52-8 and had just one three-game losing streak all season.

''If Chamberlain could have shot foul shots, we would have won 70 games, easily,'' Cunningham said with a laugh.

But five of their losses were against Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and the Celtics. The road to the title would again go through Boston. This time, the Sixers were ready.

Philly beat Oscar Robertson and the Cincinnati Royals in four games to reach the East finals. The Sixers won the first three games and lost Game 4 in Boston. The Philly fans were restless to finish the job at home and a banner was raised at the Convention Center that read ''No. 4 Now!''

Pennsylvania governor Raymond Shafer watched Game 5 with general manager Jack Ramsay and owner Irv Koslof in nervous anticipation of what was ahead. Five Sixers scored at least 21 points and they beat the Celtics 140-116 to set off a celebration.

''I really felt as though this was the greatest Celtics team, so beating this team I think helped to make up for the other losses we had over the years,'' Chamberlain, who died in 1999, said after the series.

Beating Boston gave the Sixers a championship feeling.

''It meant so much to beat Boston because the dynasty was just dominating,'' Jones said. ''People don't understand the importance in the NBA to stop that dynasty and have some other team sneak in there.''

The finals seemed a mere formality and the Sixers topped Nate Thurmond, Rick Barry and the Warriors in six games.

The Sixers were mobbed by fans at the airport and greeted by a sign that read, ''Boston bled, now the Warriors are dead.''

Chamberlain had the team autograph the game ball and gave the basketball to Michael Richman, who handled payroll, and whose father Ike had owned the team and helped bring the franchise to Philly. Ike Richman died of a heart attack in 1966 at a 76ers-Celtics game.

''When Wilt got off the plane, he flipped me the ball and said, `this is for your mother,''' the 75-year-old Richman said.

The championship ball is still with the Richman family.

The Sixers never blossomed into a dynasty and wouldn't win a championship again until Cunningham coached them to one in 1983.

''They've had great teams,'' Jones said. ''But we were the greatest.''

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